By Mike Blum
In both the 2006 and 2007 Georgia Opens, Jay McLuen held the lead on the back nine in the final round but was unable to close the deal.
McLuen again came to the back nine with a lead in the fourth round of the recent Ziplocal Georgia Open, but this time there was little chance of a repeat of his two previous failed opportunities.
When McLuen headed to the 10th tee at Barnsley Gardens Resort in Adairsville, the tournament host for the third time in four years, he was seven shots ahead of the field and showing no signs of fallibility.
Playing impeccable fairways-and-greens golf with his sizeable lead, McLuen never wavered and wound up with a seven-stroke margin of victory and the winner’s check of $8,000.
McLuen, a successful mini-tour player who played a limited Nationwide Tour schedule last year, finished with a 15-under 273 total capped by a final round 68, the second lowest score of the day.
“In 2006, I lost in a playoff,” McLuen recollected. “In 2007 I had the lead with a few holes to play. In 2008 I was third. I’ve been trying to win this tournament for a while. To finally win it is a great feeling.”
After an opening 69 highlighted by four consecutive birdies from holes 9 to 12, three of them par 5s, McLuen, was within two shots of first day leader Don Wright. McLuen grabbed the 36-hole lead with a 66, recording eight birdies to give him 14 over the first two days. His 66 was the low round of the day and matched the low round for the tournament.
McLuen’s 9-under 135 total was one better than Wright going to the weekend, and he stretched his lead to four after 54 holes, turning in a solid 69 in the third round while Wright fell off the pace.
Recent UGA golfer Rob Bennett was second going to the final round, with Matt Hughes and Jordan Mitchell firing a pair of 66s to tie for 3rd, five off McLuen’s lead.
Bennett started the final round with a birdie to close within three of the lead, but McLuen reached the par-5 fourth in two to match Bennett’s up-and-down birdie, and followed with birdies at 5 and 6. He hit his second shot stiff at the short par-4 5th and holed a putt in the 12-foot range for a third straight birdie at the 6th.
With a seven-shot lead at the turn, McLuen played the par-5 10th conservatively, but still made birdie. He followed it with eight stress-free pars, just missing the 18th green with his approach shot to deny him a perfect 18-for-18 performance in greens in regulation.
McLuen began to feel safe after the birdie at the 10th.
“I knew it would take something spectacular to beat me,” he said, with the quality of his play unlikely to result in his backing up to his distant challengers.
“I did not miss a tee shot and there were only two iron shots I missed all day,” he observed, with one of those coming on his second shot to the par-5 12th, where he nearly made birdie.
“I was hitting everything where I was looking. That was the plan. I did not want to give anybody a chance.”
McLuen, who grew up in Danielsville near Athens and now lives just outside Macon in Forsyth, was playing a competitive round for the seventh straight day. He played the three days prior to the tournament in a Peach State tour event in north Georgia, tying for 6th, and said playing competitively for seven straight days is “mentally a grind. It wears on you.”
Along with his near-misses in previous Georgia Opens, McLuen was also thinking about a recent Peach State event in which he had a three-shot lead, but wound up losing in a playoff. He says he took notice of Rory McIlroy’s comment after his collapse in the Masters that “he wasn’t going to let that define him,“ and was determined not to allow a repeat of his recent failure to hold a late lead.
Tying for 2nd at 280 were Bennett and Lilburn’s Ted Moon, who earned low amateur honors.
Bennett, an Augusta native who turned pro after recently graduating from Georgia, made several comebacks during the tournament, beginning the first day when he bogeyed three of his first four holes but rallied to shoot 70. A double bogey at the par-5 ninth in the final round knocked him out of solo 2nd, but he came back with three birdies on the back nine.
Moon, who will be a freshman on the Belmont golf team this Fall, shot three consecutive 69s after an opening 73. He had 2nd place to himself before bogeys at 17 and 18 the final day, the only bogeys on his scorecard.
Finishing as low amateur was Moon’s goal coming into then tournament, and he achieved that aim, finishing three shots ahead of Hunter Cornelius of Ringgold.
“I wasn’t thinking about winning the tournament, but I got close.” Moon said. “I had a chance.”
After birdies at 9, 10 and 12 Moon was 5-under for the day and five behind McLuen in 2nd, but that was as close as he got.
Moon said he holed “a lot of putts” during the tournament, notching 18 birdies and an eagle. It was his best showing since finishing 2nd in an American Junior Golf Association tournament last year just outside Nashville. He will attend college in Nashville at Belmont, a small Division 1 school.
Hughes tied for 4th at 281 with Savannah’s Tommy Schaff, a fellow mini-tour player. Like McLuen, Hughes played in the Peach State event earlier in the week at Nob North, also tying for 6th after leading the tournament following an opening 63.
The Dalton resident and former U. of Alabama golfer rebounded from an opening 76 that included three double bogeys, shooting 68-66 the two middle rounds. Hughes had 25 birdies on the week, 11 in the third round when he went 13 holes before making a par. Two bogeys on his final three holes on Sunday cost him a chance at outright 2nd.
Schaff made a late charge, with four birdies in a five-hole stretch on the back nine giving him a third 69 for the tournament.
With McLuen and Moon easily winning low pro and low amateur honors, the only suspense other than who was going to finish second was the battle for low Georgia PGA club professional, which wound up being a 4-player duel.
Stephen Keppler, Clark Spratlin and Bill Murchison wound up sharing that distinction, tying for 6th at 282.
Keppler, the Director of Golf at Marietta CC and the 1994 and ’95 Georgia Open champion, birdied three straight holes on the front nine to get to 8-under, but followed with bogeys on the next two holes and a costly triple bogey at the 10th, a hole he eagled the day before. But he went 3-under over the final eight holes for a 71 and his share of 6th place.
Spratlin, an instructor at Georgia Golf Center in Roswell, was one of the most consistent performers during the week, with the exception of one hole. He took a 9 on the par-5 fourth hole in the third round that led to a 74 after beginning the day in 3rd at 137, just two shots behind McLuen. Spratlin, who won the Georgia PGA event at Chicopee Woods earlier this year, went 16 holes without a bogey in the final round before making one on the tough par-3 17th.
Murchison, an assistant at Towne Lake Hills who won the Georgia PGA tournament at Berkeley Hills a few weeks before the Georgia Open, also bogeyed the 17th the final day. Murchison, who was leading among the club pros before making a double bogey at the 13th, shot 70 in the fourth round.
Tying for 10th overall and 4th among the club pros at 283 was 2004 Georgia Open champion Tim Weinhart, an instructor with Nuclear Golf, which is based at the Standard Club. Weinhart was moving up the leader board with three early birdies in the final round, but settled for a 71 after shooting a 73 the day before. Weinhart began the weekend tied for 5th after a second round 67, but was even par on the weekend.
The player who hung with McLuen the longest was Wright, who opened with scores of 67 and 69. Wright, a Douglasville resident and mini-tour veteran, made just two bogeys over his first 36 holes but had five in a third round 75, and struggled early the final day before righting himself. A closing 71 gave him a tie for 6th at 282, his fifth top-10 finish in the Georgia Open since 2005 and his fourth in a row. It was Wright’s best finish in the tournament since he tied for 5th at the Legends at Chateau Elan in ‘05.
Defending champion Samuel Del Val of Athens tied for 14th at 284, sandwiching a third round 77 between scores of 67 and 68. Recent Georgia Amateur champion David Noll of Dalton was T19 at 287 along with Steel Canyon instructor Craig Stevens, playing in his final event before the PGA Championship.
Former Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz was T28 at 291, shooting 71-71 on the weekend to improve on his T29 finish last year at Savannah Harbor.
Also tying for 28th was UGA instructor Jeff Hull, the last Georgia PGA member to win the Georgia Open (2007 at Champions Retreat). Hull was recently named the assistant coach for the women’s team at Georgia, replacing Margaret Shirley, who is returning to her alma mater Auburn as assistant coach.